Metgasco Bentley licence suspension: why they failed us

The Bentley protest camp this morning.
The Bentley protest camp this morning. Contributed

UPDATE 1.40pm: RICHMOND Valley mayor Ernie Bennett said Metgasco and the government had ignored the council's calls for better community consultation, including its recommendation they set up a shopfront in Casino.

"From the industry's point of view, if you want to operate and be welcomed, then you need to be proactive," he said.

"That's why we asked both of them to take up a shopfront in the main street and inform the community.

"If they believe gas is what's needed and is safe then they needed to get out there and sell the message."

He said if both parties had responded better to the councils repeated requests, made clear in its official position on coal-seam gas, today's outcome may have been different.

The council had requested the NSW Government conduct baseline water testing around Bentley, but when that was ignored the council was forced to go directly to Metgasco to get funds for the testing.

Mr Bennett said despite the loud voices of those against the industry, there were also a "large silent group" in the community who were "still not convinced one way or the other".

"There were a lot of people who needed more information before they could make a decision," he said.

But he also acknowledged Metgasco's challenge in dealing with the large community opposition to gas.

"How do you make it effective? I know how difficult it can be if your community aren't in the mood to be consulted."

"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink."

UPDATE 1.25pm: WHILE Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis was celebrating the suspension of Metgasco's exploration licence around Bentley, his neighbouring Nationals colleague Lismore MP Thomas George was more vague.

Asked whether Metgasco had failed to adequately consult with the community over the Rosella well, Mr George said he needed to understand the technical definition of community consultation.

"It's not spelled out in black and white," he said.

Mr George said he could not comment in-depth on Resources Minister Anthony Roberts decision to suspend Metgasco's PEL16, because he hadn't been briefed.

But he defended his record of representing the community's concerns over the gas issue, saying had raised the issue of consultation with Metgasco some months ago, after interviewing two constituents who complained they had not been consulted even though they lived within 10km of the planned Rosella well.

There was something fundamentally wrong with Metgasco's approach to their community consultation

- Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis

"I provided those details to Metgasco who said they had consulted with them, and those constituents criticized me for doing that," he said.

Mr George went on to acknowledge the issue of CSG had been one of the most divisive for his electorate.

"I've been criticized openly and continuously over this issue … (but) I've been making my representations in the appropriate place," he said.

"All the rules that we've brought in while we've been in government have certainly not provided Metgasco or Dart or any company with an easier path to gas exploration.

"Have a look at the rules that we've put in place in the last three years."

Meanwhile Mr Gulaptis welcomed the decision, saying he hoped Metgasco's suspended exploration licence was ultimately cancelled completely based on the "ongoing angst" the company's plans had created in the community.

 "There was something fundamentally wrong with Metgasco's approach to their community consultation," Mr Gulaptis said.

He also expressed relief that the planned police operation at Bentley - what would have been one of the most significant operations in NSW police history - did not go ahead.

Mr Gulaptis's electorate would have covered much of PEL16 under proposed electoral boundary adjustments ahead of next year's state election.



UPDATE 11.20am: METGASCO may be gone (for now), but the protesters at the Bentley blockade say they aren't going anywhere.

Even as celebratons continue at the site, protesters are continuing their blockade at gate "A" of the Graham family's farm.

"We are all simmos here but no one is locked on at the moment because we don't need to be," one protester said.

Gathered around a campfire protesters are expressing their joy and relief at the suspension of Metgasco's petroleum exploration licence by the NSW government.

Adam Guise of Lock the Gate described this morning's decision by Resources Minister Anthony Roberts to suspend Metgasco's Bentley licence as "a Franklin Dam moment".

Protesters at the site say they have no plans to leave and a development application for the protester camp was lodged with Richmond Valley Council only yesterday.

UPDATE 10.44am: METGASCO has announced a 48-hour trading halt on its shares after NSW Resources Minister Anthony Roberts suspended its licence to operate at Bentley and referred it to ICAC.

In a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange, the company says it is confident it is "in compliance" with all conditions relating to the site "and is seeking to demonstrate this to the government".

Mr Roberts annouced the suspension this morning, saying the company must demonstrate it had done "genuine and effective" consultation with the community on the drill site. As a separate issue, he announced he had decided to refer the company to the Independent Commission Against Corruption after receiving information "concerning shareholdings and interests in Metgasco Limited". 

The announcement followed a meeting between Bentley landowners and the director of OCSG and the NSW Land and Water Commissioner.

In its statement to the market, Metgasco says it "has sought and obtained a 48 hour ASX trading halt pending the opportunity to meet and discuss the matter with government so that there is a clearer understanding of the outlook for rig mobilisation".


UPDATE 10am: THE State Government should follow its decision to suspend Metgasco's Bentley licence with "root and branch reform" of the way it regulates coal and gas, anti-gas group Lock the Gate says.

Lock the Gate president Drew Hutton has issued a statement welcoming the news of the licence suspension and Metgasco's referral to ICAC, saying Metgasco's plans for the region had "galvanised the community".

"We offer our warm and heartfelt congratulations to the people of the Northern Rivers for this incredible people's victory," he said.

"We hope that the State Government heeds the lesson from the Northern Rivers and embarks on root and branch reform of coal and gas regulation.

"This means no-go zones to protect communities, rivers, groundwater, farmland and forests and regulatory reform to restore balance in regional NSW."

Gasfields Free Northern Rivers coordinator Ian Gaillard thanked Resources Minister Anthony Roberts for taking action.

"The blockade at Bentley sprang up in response to abject failure of the regulatory system to protect land and water from mining, and put the public interest first," he said.

The Australian Greens and Page MP Kevin Hogan have also welcomed the decision, with Mr Hogan saying the NSW Government had listened to the community and "acted accordingly".

"I've continually said that CSG in Page is not appropriate. It has become a community issue not a political one, and I congratulate Mr Roberts for suspending Metgasco's licence on the grounds that the company had not undertaken 'genuine and effective consultation with the community'," Mr Hogan said.

Greens Federal mining spokeswoman Larissa Waters said the NSW Government now needed to go a step further and revoke Metgasco's Bentley licence - a sentiment being echoed around the protest site this morning.

"A suspension isn't enough - the New South Wales Government should completely overturn this licence, especially given the lack of community consultation and the ICAC referral," Senator Waters said in a statement.

"It would be naive to think that the corruption going on in New South Wales stops at state borders.

"We need a commission against corruption federally and that's why the Greens are moving for a national ICAC in the federal Parliament today.

"Communities should not have to protest day in and day out to protect their land and water from contamination - they should have the right to say no to the big mining companies."

UPDATE 9.35am: Our reporter Rodney Stevens has arrived at the Bentley protest camp.

Drums are beating and protesters are singing in celebration of the NSW Government's decision to suspend Metgasco's drilling licence for the Bentley site.

"Hear us, can you hear us," the protesters are chanting.

The energy at the camp is one of celebration, with protesters of all ages dancing and singing: "We stand for the water, we stand for the land".

Lock the Gate spokesman Ian Gaillard, one of the driving forces behind the protest, has just arrived at Camp Bentley.

His media commitments began instantly.

About 200 protesters have gathered around a smouldering fire, dancing and singing as a drone hovers overhead filming the celebrations.

Beaming smiles and hugs are being exchanged, demonstrating the relief of protesters.

Lock the Gate chairman, Simon Clough, is hugging protesters and joining in the celebrations.

"What can I say? Woo hoo!"

Protesters celebrate at the Bentey blockade
Protesters celebrate at the Bentey blockade

UPDATE 8.50: NSW Police has cancelled an operation that had been expected to bring hundreds of police to the Bentley blockade.

In a brief statement, NSW Police Media says: "A planned NSW Police Force operation to protect public safety at a proposed gas drilling site near Lismore has been cancelled."

The Bentley operation had been tipped to bring hundreds of police from across NSW to the Northern Rivers to help Metgasco get its drill rig onto the property owned by former Lismore councillor Peter Graham.

While the State Government and NSW Police had been vague on the specifics, estimated of the numbers being sent to the region ranged as high as 900 officers, who would have been expected to quell a protest of many thousands of Northern Rivers residents.

A circular from the NSW Police Association obtained early this week suggested the number of officers involved meant they would have been accommodated across Casino, Lismore and Ballina.

The circular raised concerns so many officers would be involved it could leave some local area commands without enough officers to respond to meet "first response" requirements in the event of an emergency.

UPDATE 8.40: METGASCO is "finished" and "should pack up and leave" after NSW Resources Minister Anthony Roberts suspended the company's Bentley licence and referred it to ICAC, the Greens say.

NSW Greens mining spokesman Jeremy Buckingham described Mr Roberts' decision as "a fantastic win for the people of the Northern Rivers that have united in great spirit and determination to protect their land, water and community".

"The Bentley blockade is a physical manifestation of the social licence and shows that a social licence is not only real, but necessary for an industry like coal seam gas to operate," Mr Buckingham said in a written statement.

"People across NSW consider coal seam gas as unsafe and unnecessary.  From Western Sydney, to the Northern Rivers, to Narrabri, to Gloucester, the community is saying no and that they are prepared to put their bodies on the line to stop this industry.

"Metgasco have patently failed to win the support of the community and are finished. They should pack up and leave."

Mr Buckingham said the Greens wanted a total ban on coal seam gas "because it is unsafe, unnecessary and unwanted".

UPDATE 8.26am: ANTI-gas protesters can claim victory in the battle to keep Metgasco from Bentley, Northern Rivers Guardians president Scott Sledge has said.

Mr Sledge says protesters at the "Camp Liberty" campsite "erupted in celebration" when news came through this morning NSW Resources Minister Anthony Roberts had suspended Metgasco's licence to drill at Bentley and had referred the company to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

"Community relief is reflected all over the Northern Rivers as opposition was widespread and thousands of residents had their bags packed to join the protectors at Bentley, putting their lives on hold for a cause of massive and overwhelming importance to the future for themselves and generations to come," Mr Sledge said in a written statement.

"There will be shouting, dancing and singing around the region to celebrate this historic victory for people power.

"The war against invasive gas mining is far from over, but for now we can celebrate. 

"As the adage goes "Victory has a thousand fathers. Happy Father Day… and Mothers' Day too!"

UPDATE 7.30am METGASCO must demonstrate it has done "genuine and effective consultation" before it can hope to return to Bentley, NSW Resources and Energy Minister Anthony Roberts has said.

And he says the decision to refer the company to ICAC had been made to ensure previous decisions around the Bentley site were above board.

In a statement just released, Mr Roberts says he decided to suspend Metgasco's licence, which was issued by the former Carr Government in 1996, after the director of the Office of Coal Seam Gas and the NSW Land and Water Commissioner met with landholders at Bentley.

"I have been advised by OCSG that fundamental concerns have been expressed by members of the effected community about the way in which Metgasco has characterised its activities," Mr Roberts says in the statement.

"On 13 May 2014 the Director of OCSG and the NSW Land and Water Commissioner held a meeting with local landholders, at which matters of consultation between the community and Metgasco were raised.

"The Director of OCSG has now suspended the approval to construct the Rosella E01 gas exploration well.

"Metgasco must now demonstrate to OCSG that it has complied with this fundamental condition of its licence."

Mr Roberts described the decision to refer Metgasco to ICAC as separate from the decision to suspend its licence and that is was prompted by information "concerning shareholdings and interests in Metgasco Limited".

In accordance with Section 11 of the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act, I have referred this to the Commissioner to ensure that any decisions pertaining to PEL 16 have been made entirely properly and without any undue interest or influence."

UPDATE 7.08AM : METGASCO has been referred to the NSW corruption watchdog and its licence suspended over its Bentley operation.

Macquarie news reports NSW Resources and Energy Minister Anthony Roberts has referred the gas miner to ICAC over shareholding issues.

Mr Roberts has suspended Metgasco's licence for failing to meet conditions that it undertake genuine community consultation before beginning its operation at Bentley, where it plans to drill a conventional gas well.

The Bentley operation has prompted enormous opposition from the community, with thousands of people turning out at a blockade there.

Metgasco is the biggest coal seam gas miner operating on the Northern Rivers and is currently at the centre of a huge community protest at Bentley, between Lismore and Casino, where it plans to drill a gas well on a farm.

The company last year pulled out of the Northern Rivers, after the former Federal Government announced it would require coal seam gas operations to demonstrate they posed no risk to the water table where they proposed drilling, and after the NSW Government announced plans for exclusion zones around urban areas.

The company announced late last year it intended to drill its "Rosella" well on land owned by former Lismore councillor Peter Graham. Approvals from the Richmond Valley and Kyogle councils had just been delivered to allow the drill rig to be moved through the region and it had been expected to arrive within the next few weeks, along with hundreds of police.

6.43am: NSW Resources and Energy Minister Anthony Roberts has suspended Metgasco's licence.

Mr Jones has made the comment on his 2GB radio show this morning, saying Mr Roberts will make an announcement about Metgasco at 7.10am.

Topics:  bentley bentley blockade coal seam gas csg metgasco

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